Oscar winner Taika Waititi has teamed up with Sterlin Harjo for “Reservation Dogs,” a life-in-pieces comedy about four Indigenous teens living in Oklahoma and dreaming of a better life in California.
The eight-episode series is notable for two firsts: using an entirely Indigenous creative team (behind-the-scenes and in front of the camera) and shooting its entire season in Oklahoma (never done before for a scripted series). It arrives Aug. 9 on FX on Hulu with a top-notch pedigree in Waititi (“JoJo Rabbit,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” “Wellington Paranormal”) and Harjo, a Native American filmmaker (“Four Sheets to the Wind,” “Barking Water”).
While “Reservation Dogs” is billed as a comedy, there are no laugh-out-loud moments here — OK, maybe for Dallas Goldtooth, who plays a self-billed “more of your unknown warrior spirit” envisioned by one of the protagonists; he’s “always hungry,” relieves himself on a dumpster and resents his horse for falling in a ditch and getting them both killed at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The plot revolves around friends Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), Elora (Devery Jacobs), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) and Cheese (Lane Factor), who live in the economically depressed town of Okern and scarf down a lot of catfish (a local delicacy). They’re saving up for their big move to California and are funding their dreams through some not-so-petty theft (trucks, cars, copper wiring) that fly over the head of the self-important local cop (Zahn McClarnon). The group is closely knit and communicates, at times, in sign language. They’re also mourning the death of Daniel, one of the gang who died the previous year.
Bear is the ostensible leader of the group — at least he thinks he is (he’s not sure) — though it’s obvious that Elora is both their driving force and collective conscience. They’re not bad kids, just bored and desperate to escape Okern, and in the first four episodes we learn more about their back stories, most notably about Bear, who lives with his mother Rita (Tamara Podemski, who appeared in Harjo’s “Four Sheets to the Wind”). She works in the local health clinic and is divorced from Bear’s absentee father, wannabe rapper Punkin Lusty (Sten Joddi). Bear idolizes his dad, a local celebrity of sorts who inevitably lets his son down time and again. Still, you won’t soon forget his rap song about “greasy frybread.”
Each episode functions in its own little universe while, at the same time, inching the characters along at a leisurely pace and giving guest stars Gary Farmer and Bobbie Lee memorable turns as a pot-smoking elder, Uncle Brownie (Farmer), and the lonely, sarcastic doctor (Lee) who works with Bear’s mother at the clinic and tries, awkwardly, to strike up a dialogue with her.
I wouldn’t say that “Reservation Dogs” as a must-see, but it you have some time, you might find yourself enjoying spending some time with Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese and the residents of this quirkly little town.